The image of the starving artist is one of the most deeply ingrained etchings in the collective consciousness of the Western world, and certainly with good reason. For generations, many creative laborers have struggled to sustain a comfortable income for themselves, often wrestling with a public that doesn’t place a high monetary value on creative work. In many cases, artists will take a second job with a more sustainable cash flow — in the most favorable instances, a job related to their art.
For the creative figure of the composer, this second job will often involve teaching music, both privately or at a college or university. But for those courageous and talented few who work to make a living by composing alone, income generally comes in the form of commissions, requests for a new work for a specific ensemble or occasion. In Rackham Auditorium on Wednesday, the Takács String Quartet will be performing one such commissioned piece, Timo Andres’s Strong Language, written for the ensemble and commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Shriver Hall.
Timo Andres is a young and talented composer and pianist based out of Brooklyn. Born in 1985, he first came under the public gaze in 2010 with the release of his piano music album Shy and Mighty, which The New Yorker’s Alex Ross wrote “achieves an unhurried grandeur that has rarely been felt in American music since John Adams came on the scene” — but Andres’s musical life began far earlier.
“I grew up as a pretty serious classical pianist. I started when I was about seven, and became pretty serious pretty quickly. It was something that I initially just took to very naturally, and then pretty soon just decided that it was going to be my career,” Andres said in a phone interview with The Michigan Daily.
“And I started writing things down right around the same time. It was just sort of something that I didn’t even really have to think about, I just felt like I wanted to do it, so I did it,” Andres said.
Andres — who was in St. Paul, supervising the premiere of his new piano concerto The Blind Banister — studied piano with Eleanor Hancock in New York for many years, from his childhood through high school, before becoming more serious about composition in their later time together. Andres began his serious composition studies during high school, taking lessons through the Juilliard pre-college program.
“I guess the composition sort of gradually became more and more important to me as I studied it more seriously, until the writing and the playing were sort of on equal footing, and feeding into each other,” Andres said.
“After high school I decided to go to Yale, rather than go to a conservatory,” Andres said of his post high school education, explaining how he earned both his undergraduate degree and master’s degree from the university.
“It was just sort of a gut feeling I had at the time that I would have found a conservatory kind of stifling,” he said of his decision to attend a university rather than a conservatory. “I don’t do well with bureaucracy or authority … and conservatories tend to be very rigid atmospheres … (additionally) I always knew I wanted to be a professional musician, but I also wanted to study more than just music.”
The piece being performed this Wednesday was composed by Andres for the Takács Quartet, which was formed in 1975 and is the quartet-in-residence at the University of Colorado Boulder. Discussing the piece, Strong Language, Andres spoke about its inspiration.
“In many ways it was inspired directly by the quartet’s playing. I went to hear the Takács Quartet a little less than a year ago in New York, and I knew I was about to start writing a piece for them, so I was kind of looking for things … that made their playing especially their own,” Andres said.
“And what impressed me about their playing was their sense of gesture — being conveyed by four different people — that was so unified and so clear, so that it almost seemed like the music was taking on these physical forms,” the composer explained. “I got the idea that the piece would have these very simple gestures that would be elaborated upon and varied over the course of the three movements.”
Andres composed the central movement of the piece before the first and last, beginning with music that was “very still and quiet, and then gradually expanded outward in both directions, little by little, so that by the time it ended … it was this very grand and expressive, (with a) leaping melody,” the composer said.
According to Andres, the first movement of Strong Language works in a similar way. The movement is built on initially unaccompanied arch-shaped melodies which repeat and grow more elaborate throughout the movement.
“Each time that melody is repeated these kind of substrata, these layers of decayed material kind of pile up underneath it, so each time the melody gets more embellished and more harmonized, and more just kind of noisy,” Andres said.
“That movement is called ‘Middens,’ which is a type of archeological site which is basically an ancient trash pile — this kind of process of layers piling up over the ages,” the composer said.
Andres draws on classical tradition for the structure of Strong Language’s last movement. The final movement is “a chaconne, or a passacaglia, based on a sequence of chords in the bass that are repeated in a cycle,” Andres said. The chaconne is a variation form that was very popular during the Baroque period in the 17th and 18th centuries, but fell out of favor until composers such as Britten and Shostakovich revived it in the mid 1900s.
“It starts with hearing those chords and these very quiet, diffuse noises in the upper strings,” Andres said. “And eventually those noises fill in to become this perpetual motion cycling rhythm. The lower strings take on a melodic role underneath that, and that ends up leading to these reminiscences of the other two movements in the end.”
Composed in the spring of this year, Strong Language was premiered less than a month ago by the Takács Quartet, who will be performing it again on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in Rackham Auditorium. Also on the program will be favorites from the 18th and 19th centuries, by Haydn and Dvořák, respectively.